JUNE 22, 2018
THERE HAS BEEN, for some years now, a special relationship between writers of hardboiled noir fiction and poets. Noirists as diverse as Kenneth Fearing, Alfred Hayes, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Charles Willeford were also poets of some repute. Even Raymond Chandler, the master of off-the-wall hardboiled similes, published verses in The Westminster Gazette decades before his first crime story appeared in Black Mask. Presently, Stephen Dobyns, John Harvey, and Jim Nisbet move between the two types of writing with apparent ease. Perhaps not so accomplished were hardboiled efforts by poets Jack Spicer and Richard Hugo. Then there are those whose poetry contains noirish elements, from Weldon Kees, Charles Reznikoff, John Wieners, and Charles Bukowski, to Summer Brenner, Lynda Hull, Frank Stanford, and William Logan.
To make sense of the relationship, one need only recall the legendary French crime publisher Marcel Duhamel’s advice to Chester Himes in the late 1940s regarding the house rules for Duhamel’s Série Noire:
Always action in detail. Make pictures. Like motion pictures. Always the scenes are visible. No streams of consciousness at all. We don’t give a damn who’s thinking what — only what they’re doing. Always doing something. From one scene to another. Don’t worry about it making sense.
All of which isn’t far removed from William Carlos Williams’s imagist declaration, “No ideas but in things,” or André Breton’s insistence that surrealism is based on “the fundamental crisis of the object.” Like modern lyric poetry, noir favors minimalism, a quality we see in Dashiell Hammett and, to an even higher degree, in Paul Cain. Their technique is cinematic in nature, fusing precise perceptions into suspenseful narratives, sharpening the reader’s focus on details, as does poetry.
Scottish poet Robin Robertson is the latest in this line of generic bedfellows. His contribution is a book-length narrative poem that examines the relationship between a specific historical period and film noir. On the inner jacket, his publisher describes The Long Take (2018) as “a noir narrative written with the intensity and power of poetry.” And indeed, although The Long Take is definitely a poem, I can’t think of anything quite like it. There is, of course, Kevin Young’s recent Black Maria (2005), and back in 1928 we had Joseph Moncure March’s The Set-Up and The Wild Party, adapted into films by Robert Wise and James Ivory respectively. But The Long Take, set mostly in and around Los Angeles’s Bunker Hill from 1946 to 1957, and subtitled “A Way to Lose More Slowly,” is considerably more modern, complex, political, and, though cinematic, probably less filmable than March’s narratives. It’s also more sustained and situated in the real world than Young’s excellent episodic endeavor. And despite its peregrinations in time, place, and rhythm, Robertson’s poem, when it comes to its inner workings, is also surprisingly novelistic. What creates that impression is the poet’s use of prose-like descriptions, such as this portrayal of a Bunker Hill barfly:
This old doll at the other end of the counter, the look
of fallen masonry about her: face
a ruin of crumbling plaster, badly painted,
eyebrows halfway up her forehead, her mouth
like it had been dug out with a knife.
At times reminiscent of John Fante or maybe Richard Hallas’s You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up (1938) — with a dash of Weldon Kees’s Robinson poems and Kenneth Fearing’s “Sherlock Spends a Day in the Country” thrown in for good measure — The Long Take incorporates letters, journals, and marginalia to complement the thrust of the narrative. Though centered in Los Angeles, the narrative kicks off in New York, in 1946, when a demobbed and war-traumatized Walker, formerly of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders — their Gaelic slogan, “cos cheum nach gabh tilleadh,” significantly translates to “no retreating footsteps” — arrives in the city. Nomen est omen, and Walker traipses through Manhattan’s streets, where postwar shadows are already forming and conversations in watering holes take place at oblique angles, including one with none other than director Robert Siodmak, who has just finished shooting his Cry of the City (1948). Like a film noir Horace Greeley, Siodmak advises Walker to head West.
Which is what Walker does, ending up in Bunker Hill, alongside an assortment of lowlifes. There he meets Billy, a fellow vet, street person, and barometer of the culture. He explains to Walker why Bunker Hill’s days are numbered:
See, it’s all about functionality now,
which is speed, efficiency and profit.
They call it a clean sweep
to eradicate crime — which means blacks — to fumigate
and disinfect the city against disease
— which means the black and the poor —
to demolish slums and blighted areas — which means
the homes and communities of the black and poor and old
[…] They call this progress, when it’s really only greed.
Somehow Walker lands a job with the left-leaning Daily News–like L.A. Press. Billy inspires his investigative mission: to write about destitute World War II veterans up and down the state. An inveterate outsider with radical sympathies, Walker draws suspicion. Sitting alone at a bar and reading Red Harvest (1929), he’s taken for a communist — though it’s the title of the book, not its contents or the politics of its author, that leads to the assumption, as well as Walker’s desire to distance himself from other drinkers. This in an era when the other was supremely suspect, and McCarthyism, which Walker will write about, was rearing its ugly head. Yet it’s only among these others that Walker feels at home. And so the leveling of Bunker Hill to make way for freeways, parking lots, and various corporate monstrosities is a tragedy at both the social and personal level. But Walker goes on. Like a situationist searching for an ideology, he cannot stop perambulating, from Bunker Hill outward, seeking signs, hearing voices, and seeing faces from the past, including that of the woman he left back in rural Nova Scotia.
Since noir is the spirit of the time, and Bunker Hill is a de facto film set, Walker cannot help but co-opt the language, imagery, and perspective of that genre. Among the films he witnesses being made in and around Bunker Hill, or sees in movie houses, are Kiss Me Deadly, Criss Cross, Brute Force, D.O.A., Dark Passage, The Lady from Shanghai, Decoy, Border Incident, Union Station, T-Men, Kiss of Death, Rope, Night and the City, He Walked by Night, Raw Deal, Naked City, The Big Clock (based on a Fearing novel), Out of the Past, Ride the Pink Horse (based on a Dorothy B. Hughes novel), The Sniper, and The Big Combo. He even runs into director Joseph H. Lewis as The Big Combo (1955) is being shot. However, it’s the talents of Lewis’s cinematographer, John Alton, that come in for special praise:
He saw its hardlines all the way home through the fog:
the raking headlamp opening up a wall, the shadows
tightening in around this spoon of light that’s dragged
across metal doors, snapped to darkness. The white verticals tilt and fall,
till they’re one long spine of light
through these rainy streets: a needle.
Following an interlude in San Francisco, Walker returns to Los Angeles. It’s 1953, and in the time he’s been away Bunker Hill inhabitants have become even more desperate and distraught as they watch their world disappear. It’s enough to make Walker bar-hop in search of old pals, most of them now dead or dying; or maybe that’s just an excuse for Walker to go on a bender — anything to keep him from thinking about the past or what is happening in the present. With L.A. smog now worse than ever, Walker concludes that “[t]he city is dying.” And it is here that things go somewhat asymmetrical, as Robertson counterposes the corporate destruction of Bunker Hill with the human destruction caused by World War II. Farfetched perhaps, though we do learn that, in Bunker Hill’s makeover, some 9,000 residents would be displaced, structures covering 134 acres destroyed, and the elevation lowered by some 100 feet. Says Walker, “Cities are a kind of war.” Yet, for all his talk, Walker’s politics — longing for a sense of community and a fair deal for veterans, as well as opposition to speculators and faceless corporations — aren’t really all that radical. Film noir, too, had no specific political agenda. What it did have was a sense of dread, of a coming catastrophe. In that sense, The Long Take is very much in line with the tradition that inspired it, not least when Robertson emphasizes “the dead streets of Los Angeles,” and the possibility that the United States, with its hatred of the other, might soon turn fascist.
Though the poem’s diffuseness tends to lessen its visceral impact, The Long Take remains a remarkable work. An occasional phrase may be out of sync with the era, like “watching each other’s back” or “getting totalled,” and there are moments when the poem, introduced by a map of old Bunker Hill, reads like a tourist guide to the city’s noir hot spots. But, for the most part, Robertson gets it right, his language functional and often exquisite:
There were parts of the city that were pure blocks of darkness,
where light would slip in like a blade to nick it, carve it open:
a thin stiletto, then a spill of white; the diagonal gash
of a shadow, shearing; the jagged angle sliding over itself
to close; the flick-knife of a watchman’s torch, the long gasp
of headlights from nowhere, their yawning light — then
just as quickly
their fading away:
closed over, swallowed
by the oiled, engraining, leaden dark.
He hears running
but there’s no one there.
His shadow folds into the wall, then along it.
The Long Take seems like a poem that’s long been waiting to be written. It closes with a photograph of a partially demolished Bunker Hill Victorian house — in fact, the monumental Melrose Hotel on South Grand Avenue, torn down in 1957, the year the poem ends. Though rooted in a specific time and place, The Long Take’s larger theme is the capacity of greed and politics to turn hope into despair. In this way, the poem speaks to the present as well as to the past.
Woody Haut is the author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood; and of the novel Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime.